Still playin' to win


March 26, 2004


The Rev. Al Green is apologetic -- our scheduled interview has been postponed three times before we finally connect on the phone. "I had a crisis in the parish that I had to attend to," the 68-year-old singer-turned-preacher explains. "I wanna make it up to you!"

He proceeds to strum a guitar through the course of our chat, breaking into song to illustrate his musical points -- giving me a private, telephonic concert from one of the all-time soul legends.

There are definite perks in this job.


*9 tonight and Saturday night
*House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
*Tickets, $65
*(312) 923-2000

Green has just released one of the strongest albums of his career, "I Can't Stop," his first set of secular material in 12 years. It finds him reuniting with Willie Mitchell, the bandleader and producer who helmed all of his best recordings in the '70s, and it is reportedly inspiring him to reach for new heights onstage.

The Reverend comes to the House of Blues for two shows this weekend, with opener Ricky Fante.

Q. Congratulations on the album. Was it a treat getting together again with Willie to record?

A. It always takes you back to the sha-la-la, oh baby! I'm going, "Oh, you're hitting me where it hurts!" You know I like that stuff. Willie Mitchell, he likes it, too. So, yeah! We wanted to make some music, and Willie says, "You didn't hear too much [of the good stuff] out there today." I guess it's just a different era, but I'm talking about something that reaches you down here -- something that is really soulful, something that hits me down in my gut.

Q. So much of modern R&B is almost so slick that you can't hear it.

A. It's not a hard-work thing, is it? Willie says it sounds like bubble gum music. It's music, but there is a lot of synthesizing and voice-altering tubes. Willie, he can hear it. I'm just trying to sing what we wrote. I finished a second album already. I couldn't stop; I finished it today.

Q. When do you know a song is a keeper?

A. When you can feel it in your heart, in your soul, in your spirit. It's like my kids -- all of them sing. So, little Trevor, my 8-year-old, he sings "Ba-a-aby!" He gets down on his knees, and he's a little chubby, you know? He gets down on his little knees, and I say, "Why do you have to get down on the floor?" And he says, "Daddy, it's just good!" I said, "Well, get down on your knees boy. If you feel it in your heart, and it feels that good to you, get down on your knees!"

Q. What's so special about the combination of you and Willie Mitchell?

A. I'd like to say magic, but we don't really believe in magic. But it's a special bond that we promised ourselves at least 28 years ago. And when we get together, we try to fulfill our vow by making the most furious music we can make without being phony. What both of us hate is being phony. We try to fulfill that by doing track No. 2 [from "I Can't Stop"], "Play to Win." We were in Dallas the other night, and it worked like a charm. Some of the people were saying, "Yeah, come back later and we'll get another building!" It was that packed.

Q. Is performing live still a kick for you?

A. Yeah! My doctor says it's good for me. An hour, an hour and 20 minutes, it's exercise -- you get the heart rate up, get the heart going, and it's really good for your abs. I do about 40, 50 shows a year. His thing is, "The exercise, the right diet and the shows do nothing but help you." We did that the other night in Dallas. All of those people there, and I didn't see maybe more than two or three African-Americans, but they knew all the words. And I missed a note the other night, and some lady sang it right. I said, "That's right -- hit the note!" These people knew all the words verbatim, and that is a blessing.

Q. Not only did they grow up with you, but many of them were conceived to your music.

A. A lady on the plane pointed to her little girl and said, "Look what you've done!" And I said, "Uh-oh, what did I do?" And she sang, "'Lay your head on my pillow'" My husband I and have been together for 18 years, we have two kids, and your music is a big part of that." This is a little me walking around here. It's a good thing.

Q. As romantic and inspirational as your music is, it never crosses the line. Where do you think the boundaries are today in terms of expressing sexuality in music?

A. I know these people who do these things and create a big controversy -- like Janet [Jackson]. I think that was just a cheap trick, and I don't mean the band! The pulling the bra thing, that was like, "Aww, come on!" The family is sitting around eating popcorn, watching the game. I think it is really a cry for attention. Justin [Timberlake] is my neighbor; he lives like three miles from the house [in Memphis]. He said, "When we did that rehearsal, she had a bra on, Al. But when we got ready to do the show, she had no bra under." It's like the shocker treatment.

Q. How can you be sexy without being tawdry?

A. Well, you can't do too much wiggling and rolling around with Justin on the stage -- putting your butt up against his personal parts and moving and grooving and all that. You can say what you want to say, but you don't have to be so explicit about demonstrating it. If all of the people are grown in the audience, they know what you are talking about.

Q. And the passion is really all in the voice.

A. Absolutely! They all think you have to be a thug to make good music today. But Willie Mitchell and I and some other people don't understand that. We know what it means to be from a rough neighborhood. These rappers come from South Central L.A.; we've been there, we know what it is about. I was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had to work at a car wash to make a living. So I know what hard times are about. It's just that when you have to go rob and steal or commit a crime or something, does that make you a great artist just because you've lived the life? We didn't rob or kill anybody; we were just trying to get through high school and even some college.